Witjira National ParkWitjira National Park Attractions Dalhousie Springs Indigenous Heritage and Culture

Irrwanyere (healing waters) Dalhousie Springs
Irrwanyere (healing waters) Dalhousie Springs

One of the most popular stopovers along the Oodnadatta Track, whether it is for a night or a week, is the Dalhousie Springs in the Witjira National Park. Fed by the Great Artesian Basin, the warm 34-38ºC thermal springs in natural surrounds, offer the travellers a relaxing getaway.

This is an off-road 4WD access and trailers, caravans and motorhomes are not recommended east of Dalhousie Springs, although it is amazing to see how the experienced and seasoned caravanner negotiate their way to this location and beyond. Always check weather and road conditions from either Oodnadatta or Mount Dare. Information may also be posted on the official Witjira National Park site.

Irrwanyere (healing waters)

The unique Dalhousie Springs is the largest and the main thermal spring in the Witjira National Park. The hot fresh water are fed by the Great Artesian Basin, providing a warm 34-38ºC, in natural surrounds, where travellers can bathe and relax.

Witjira National Park is located on the western edge of the Simpson Desert, with travellers accessing the park from Oodnadatta. This is off-road 4WD access and trailers, caravans and motorhomes are not recommended east of Dalhousie Springs. Check weather and road conditions from either Oodnadatta, Mount Dare. Information may also be posted on the official Witjira National Park site.

You can help to protect this and other parts of our magnificent natural heritage by using the toilet facilities and keeping to marked tracks and roads.

Do not litter or wash in the springs or creeks. Do not use generators.

The animals that live here need the shelter provided by the trees growing around the springs. Please do not take firewood from this area. Only use firewood that you purchased or have brought into the national park.

Check the Witjira National Park website for current status on fires (you are not allowed to collect firewood within the park. As is becoming common in many national parks, you are required to bring your own firewood with you). Ensure you take away all your own rubbish (and maybe rubbish left by other thoughtless individuals).

Dalhousie Springs Attractions

Dalhousie Springs – The Mound Springs
Dalhousie Springs is like a large upside-down shower rose discharging water from the Great Artesian Basin through approximately 80 holes called “mound springs”.

Water from Queensland and the Northern Territory soaks underground and travels here slowly under layers of hard rock. The high temperatures of the earths core heat the waters of the Artesian Basin. It takes some water up to 3 million years until it can escape to the surface through rock faults as springs.

The water that flows out from the springs has many minerals dissolved in it. As the water evaporates these minerals are left behind as solids. Over time they accumulate with the ancient sand and clay to form mounds around the springs outlets.

For thousands of years the springs have been the only natural source of permanent water in the desert. The mound springs are isolated form surrounding rivers therefore some of the plant and animal species have become specialized to these springs – in some case even to a specific mound spring. There are at least:

  • 3 fish species
  • 6 water snail species
  • several small crustaceans
  • and possibly a yabbie and frog species

    all living in Dalhousie and nowhere else.

Dalhousie Springs
In the main pool where you can enjoy swimming and soaking the water is a warm 34-38ºC and up to 14 metres deep. West of the main pool the spring flows at a rate of 160 litres per second at a hot 43ºC.

Source: DEWNR: Witjira National Park signage

The Dalhousie Springs area consists of a number of grouping of springs, such as the Kingfisher Springs. Located in the north -east corner of the Dalhousie Springs complex, this group of 12 springs consists of three large flowing springs, two low flowing springs, five seeping springs and two dry springs. These springs are ecologically diverse and contain a high proportion of the Dalhousie endemic species. They are also one of the complex’s most significant springs in relation to Aboriginal culture. The Kingfisher is thought to be one of the locations of the original date palm plantings by Essington Lewis that have become degraded by the date palms.1

Dalhousie Springs Wildlife

The waters of the thermal mound springs in the Witjira National Park are of particular scientific interest, as many of the aquatic creatures such as the fish, have developed a tolerance to the variations of water temperature.

Dalhousie Springs is home to a number of endemic (found nowhere else in the world) species of fish. Fish species in Dalhousie Springs include the:

  • Dalhousie hardy-head (Craterocephalus dalhousiensis)
  • Dalhousie catfish (Neosilurus sp A)
  • Dalhousie goby (Chlamydogobius gloveri)
  • Spangled perch (Leiopotherapon unicolor)
  • Dalhousie mogurnda (Mogurnda sp 2)
Dalhousie Goby
Dalhousie Goby

Except for the recent introduction of spangled perch the six species of the springs probably arrived here during an earlier wetter climate. They adapted to spring life as this area became isolated by our present climate. Three types adapted so much they are now new species.

Hyperactive? The Dalhousie catfish moves almost constantly – nearly out of control in an effort to find rare and random food in these nutrient poor springs.

This desert adapted community is unique worldwide, no other springs have as many native species!

Felt your toes being tickled? Dalhousie gobys are curious, harmless fish that graze on algae, eat snails and occasionally pick at human hairs!

Listen for the rapid ‘uk-uk-uk’ of the Spotted Grass Frog along the banks of the cooler streams and springs. Common over most of south-east Australia, the frog has adapted to the desert. These desert adapted frogs usually emerge during warm wet nights to feed and mate.

Hydrobiid Snails are small grey snails which graze on microscopic plants and bacteria, are the most common animal you will see in the springs. Six species are known from this area.

Source: DEWNR: Witjira National Park brochure & park signage at Dalhousie Springs

Native Mammals and Wildlife
Wildlife in the area are generally rare or not easily seen, many being nocturnal. Many of Australia’s mid-sized mammals are now extinct due to habitat loss and the impact of introduced species. In these desert areas the struggle for survival is compounded by erratic and harsh conditions. Some of the animals that lived in these desert areas include:

  • Fat-tailed Dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata)
    Dunarts are fiercely carnivorous marsupials but they only grow to 13 cm. They mainly east small insects and grubs. Like many other desert dwellers they can survive without drinking, living from the water in their foods.
  • Long-haired Rat (Rattus villosissimus)
    During good season the long-haired Rat is able to breed quickly and spread out from permanent water – hence its other name of plague rat. Despite its name its body hair is no longer than other rats.
  • White-striped Mastiff Bat (Tadarida australis)
    The White-striped Mastiff Bat usually forages above the tree tops for insects but will sometimes land to feed. It then needs to climb to a high point to launch into flight to return to its daytime hollows.
  • Paucident Planigale (Planigale gilesi)
    Despite weighing less than 10 grams (a $2 coin), Planigales are tenacious hunters which can kill and eat animals and insects of their own size. Their very flattened heads allow them to live in cracks in clay soils which shelter them from predators and weathers.
  • Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)
    Once common in the arid and semi-arid regions of Australia, the bilby is locally extinct. It now lives in restricted parts of central Australia where it’s long, soft, blue-grey fur and delicate features, seem out of character with the harsh desert. There are a number of programs in Australia working on increasing their numbers and reintroducing them in areas that are fenced or protected from feral animals such as cats.
  • Dingo (Canis dingo)
    Are species that belong to a group of primitive dogs characterised by short coats, erect ears, a characteristic skull shape and teeth. One of their differences from domestic dogs, is that dingoes rarely bark. Instead they tend to howl, particularly at night, dust and dawn. This howling appears to be their form of communication to attract pack members or to ward off intruders. For more information check out our Dingo page under Fauna.

Source: DEWNR: Witjira National Park brochure & park signage at Dalhousie Springs

Dingo at Dalhousie Springs (species Canis lupus dingo, class Mammalia)
Dingo at Dalhousie Springs (species Canis lupus dingo, class Mammalia)

The thermal mound springs provide a haven for birdlife, including waterfowl, raptors, ducks, cormorants, grebes, stilts and egrets, as well as a variety of smaller woodland and shrubland species. In particular the park support three rare bird species – the Australian bustard, the flock bronzewing and the plains-wanderer. Dalhousie Springs is part of a water corridor which helps birds move from south-eastern Australia to the Northern Territory and in some cases the northern hemisphere.

Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes)
Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) at Dalhousie Springs

The pools and drainage creeks provide an ideal habitat for waterbirds, with over 150 species known to frequent this area, including several species that live on the harsh gibber tablelands. Some of the birds that can be seen include:

  • Yellow-Billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes)
    Graceful yellow-billed spoonbills swish the water with their sensitive bills to snap up water insects. Large untidy nests along the creeks may belong to these birds.
  • Fairy Martins (Hirundo ariel)
    Flocks of fairy martins skilfully dodge each other before skimming the spring surface to drink. These are the only Australian birds that build a bottle-shaped mud nest.
  • Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis)
    Once common, the bustard is now mostly restricted to inland Australia where it follows growth brought on by rainfall. Bustards usually lay only one egg each year. Their numbers have declined through loss of habitat, the fox and illegal shooting.

    Check out our Fauna information on the Australian Bustard.
  • Rainbow birds (Merops ornatus)
    Like flying jewels, rainbow birds flash through the air. A common migrant here, they can be seen during the cooler months. Dragonflies and fees are cleverly caught on the wing.

    Check out our Fauna info on the Rainbow birds (known as Rainbow Bee-eaters).
  • Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos)
    Slowly circling or soaring over the creek channels, the grey falcon is one of Australia’s rarest birds of prey. When hunting they move at great speed to snatch small mammals, reptiles and insects from the ground or swoop on larger birds in mid air.

Source: DEWNR: Witjira National Park brochure & park signage at Dalhousie Springs

Dalhousie reptiles range from the giant perentie to the tiny tree dtella. Most reptiles avoid their enemies and the extremes of summer heat by staying underground during the heat of the day, coming out to feed and bask at other times. Snakes here include the venomous western brown and king brown. Reptiles in the Dalhousie region include:

  • Painted Dragon (Ctenophorus pictus)
    The painted dragon is a common colourful lizard that makes its burrows among the roots of the nitre bush at Dalhousie.
  • Tree Dtella (Gehyra variegata)
    Sheltering under bark and sometimes rocks, the tree dtella is the most common gecko found here. They can climb smooth surfaces thanks to tiny velcro-like hooks on the pads of their toes. You may see them at night foraging in the light of your campfire.
  • Perentie (Varanus giganteus)
    The perentie is Australia’s largest goanna which can grow to nearly 2.5 m long. It coves large areas in search of prey, eating anything from insects to carrion, and returns to eh shelter of a burrow at night.

    Check out our Fauna information on the Perentie.
  • Long-Nosed Dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris)
    Possessing a very long tail and nose the long-nosed dragon lives along water courses feeding on insects. They may be seen leaping onto tree branches or, if alarmed, running away on their back legs.

    Check out our Fauna information on the Long-nosed Dragon.
  • Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii)
    Sand goannas forage over a wide area eating anything they can catch and swallow. This includes insects, spiders, lizards, eggs, snakes and carrion. If disturbed they run at lightning speed.

    Check out our Fauna information on the Sand Goanna.

Source: DEWNR: Witjira National Park brochure & park signage at Dalhousie Springs

Dalhousie Springs Plants

In the Dalhousie area there are approximately 100 plant species, including one endemic and several rare species. Tall tea trees, bullrushes and reeds fringe the water edge. When first seen by Europeans the reeds were up to 5.25 metres high!

The plants found here cope with the extreme conditions by using special adaptations to minimize water loss and take advantage of any opportunities.

Deep rooted emu-bush survives amongst the gibber by reflecting sunlight off coated leaves to reduce water loss. The majestic date palms which sway gently over the springs were introduced 100 years ago and have thrived here. Other plants to be found include:

  • Samphire (Halosarcia spp)
    Samphire can withstand the high levels of salinity that border the springs. they have no leaves and their tiny flowers are difficult to see.

    The genus Halosarcia, with three other Australian genera (Pachycornia, Sclerostegia and Tegicornia) are now incorporated into the genus Tecticornia.
Samphire (Halosarcia spp) at Dalhousie Springs
Samphire (Halosarcia spp) at Dalhousie Springs
  • Red Mulga (Acacia cyperophylla)
    The pretty curling bark of this tree clothes a very hard wood. It is found in some creek lines of the northern deserts and requires good rain to flower.
  • Tea-tree (Melaleuca glomerata)
    Needing a constant supply of water the tea-tree is found fringing the spring shoreline. Its dense overhanging leaves provide shade for the waterlife of the springs. It grows to 12 metres here which is taller than its typical size of 3 metres elsewhere in Australia.
  • Gidgee (Acacia cambagei)
    To some people the pungent smell of the gidgee is a favourite reminder of the desert after rain or when it is flowering. To others its nickname of “stinking” wattle is more apt.

Source: DEWNR: Witjira National Park brochure & park signage at Dalhousie Springs

Footnote & References

  1. Expedition Witjira Interim Report (12-26 July 2003), A biodiversity survey of the mound springs and surrounding area, Scientific Expedition Group with National Parks and Wildlife and Department for Environment and Heritage (11.5 Mb PDF) https://data.environment.sa.gov.au/Content/Publications/ExpeditionWitjira12-26July2003-BiodiversitySurveyMoundSprings-INTREPORT_2006.pdf

Witjira National ParkWitjira National Park Attractions Dalhousie Springs Indigenous Heritage and Culture

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